The ABCs of Unbiased News Coverage

David Kirkham is a war hero. He didn’t brave enemy fire to rescue a fallen comrade, and he didn’t shoot down an enemy missile; nothing like that. His courage was the sort that doesn’t usually get public recognition.

Kirkham was a news reporter at CBC radio in Edmonton during the Gulf War. Over the CBC national news one day, came an item from one of the station’s reporters in the Persian Gulf. The journalist — with unabashed enthusiasm — described as “brilliant” a tactical manoeuvre by U.S. ground forces.

Kirkham thought the term “brilliant” had more to do with boosterism and less to do with journalism, and so he fired off an e-mail to his bosses in Toronto. Senior news management was furious. The incident didn’t further Kirkham’s journalism career at the CBC. It also hurt morale in the newsroom.

This little story is meant to illustrate there are wars within wars, and media coverage is one of those wars.

Other journalists have recently stepped on landmines — political ones. They too have discovered that freedom of speech can be a figure of speech.

A newspaper columnist in Oregon and another in Texas were reprimanded after they wrote articles critical of President Bush. They said Bush was running scared immediately following the attacks on New York and Washington. The penalty for these journalists was an economic execution. They were fired.

More than journalists are feeling the heat when they do not play the game.

U.S. film director Michael Moore, usually in high demand by the major TV talk shows in the U.S., is not very popular with the networks these days. Moore figures it’s because the U.S. media — which he describes as embarrassing and pathetic — is “singing with the chorus,” and he’s not.

What Moore has to say about U.S. foreign policy upsets some people, especially those in Washington. He says terrorism funded and supported by the U.S. has orphaned thousands of children around the world ... and no one should be too surprised when these children grow up to be a “little whacked in the head.”

Former CBC producer Dennis Sherbanuk says there are two opinions about the war, but only one counts.

Canadian professors Sunera Thobani, of the University of British Columbia, and Shyamal Bagchee, of the University of Alberta, have been accused of being “insensitive” for saying U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood.

The truth is not always sensitive. We’re talking news, not glossy write-ups in obituary columns.

A former Nicaraguan consul-general to Canada says the news media in North America should report on the roots of terrorism instead of contributing to “war frenzy.” Pastor Valle-Garay says “educated, intelligent and well-to-do individuals simply don’t just get up one morning and decide to destroy America’s democratic institutions for the hell of it.”

Valle-Garay knows all about the pain of terrorism. His Sandinista administration battled attacks in the 1980s at a cost of 30,000 lives. The Contra rebels — equipped and financed by the United States — randomly attacked and murdered civilians and aid workers in Nicaragua.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the U.S. violated international law and fined it US$17-billion. That was about ten years ago. Not a penny has been paid.

Valle-Garay says a witch-hunt by the U.S. and its allies is wrong and heavy-handed — “not unlike the tactics of the terrorists.”

After the attacks on New York and Washington, a man in the States asked a reporter, “Why do they hate us?” Good question. The media should do a better job of informing people.

Australian journalist John Pilger maintains there is no “war on terrorism.” “If there was,” he writes in the British paper, The Mirror, “the Royal Marines and the SAS would be storming the beaches of Florida, where more CIA-funded terrorists, ex-Latin American dictators and torturers, are given refuge than anywhere on earth.”

“The hypocrisy does not stop there,” Pilger continues. “When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, Washington said nothing. Why? Because Taliban leaders were soon on their way to Houston, Texas, to be entertained by executives of the oil company, Unocal. With secret U.S. government approval, the company offered them a generous cut of the profits of the oil and gas pumped through a pipeline that the Americans wanted to build from Soviet central Asia through Afghanistan.”

"If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents,” George Bush announced on the day the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, “they have become outlaws and murderers themselves."

"I’m glad he said ‘any government,’” writes George Monbiot in The Guardian, “because there’s one which requires urgent attention. “For the past 55 years, it has been running a terrorist training camp, whose victims massively outnumber the people killed by the attack on New York, the embassy bombings and the other atrocities laid at al-Qaida’s door. The camp is called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) in Fort Benning, Georgia, and it is funded by Mr. Bush’s government.”

Monbiot goes on to say that, until this year, WHISC was called the “School of the Americas,” where an estimated 60,000 Latin American soldiers and police officers attended classes.

Among its alumni are many of Latin America’s most notorious torturers, mass murderers and dictators. They include:

  • Roberto D’Aubuisson, identified as the United Nations truth commission on El Salvador as leader of the deaths squads there.
  • Argentina’s dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri;
  • Panama’s Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos;
  • Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado;
  • Ecuador’s Guillermo Rodriguez;
  • the leader of the Grupo Colina death squad in Fujimori’s Peru;
  • four of the five officers who ran the infamous Battalion 3-16 in Honduras (which controlled the death squads therein the 1980s);
  • the commander responsible for the 1994 Ocosingo massacre in Mexico.

If this is all news to you, it underscores the need for the media to better inform people.

American media critic, Noam Chomsky, is critical of U.S. State Department “proof” that Osama Bin Laden is behind the attacks on New York and Washington, describing the evidence as thin. He says he expected more, given the “most intensive international investigation in history.”

Chomsky also says charges against the Taliban are virtually nonexistent. And he says, “if harboring suspected terrorists is a crime that merits bombing, then much of the world — including the U.S. — should be instantly attacked.”

Incidentally, Chomsky’s comments are from an alternative news site — not the mainstream media.

Should journalists describe the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan as the “war on terrorism” — as Washington would like  or should it be described as a war or attack on Afghanistan? It’s their choice. I say that reporters should be neutral and avoid government buzzwords — unless, of course, they’re bucking for a PR job with the military, or planning to hop on an overseas all-expenses-paid military junket.

The military loves those junkets; they’re cheaper than commercials.

It’s tough being neutral, because everyone wants you onside, especially the locals. I broadcast news at one of the private radio stations in Edmonton, which has quite a large audience. I also write and edit my news, and that’s important.

Here are some things I do with my news copy to remain impartial and avoid the use of emotive terms:

  • What remains of the World Trade Center is not “ground zero” but debris, rubble or remains.
  • Unless it’s a direct quote or otherwise attributable to a third party, there are no “terrorist attacks,” just “attacks.”
  • There are no “freedom fighters” and no one is “martyred.”
  • I agree with Reuters, which recently said its policy is to try to avoid the use of emotional terms and not make value judgments concerning the facts they attempt to report accurately and fairly.
  • Radio stations in Canada often use voice reports from U.S. journalists, some of them based in Washington. If these reporters indicate at the end of their dispatch that they’re reporting from the Pentagon, I tell my listeners that right off the top. (Joe Blow reports from the Pentagon ...” ). This way, listeners are given fair notice, and they can better evaluate what they’re getting.
  • In my copy, it’s not the “war on terrorism,” but the “attack on Afghanistan.”
  • Sometimes, wire copy describes Osama Bin Laden as a terrorist, but since the man has not been convicted, I leave that out. A conviction by the U.S. State Department doesn’t cut it with me. “Suspected terrorist” or “suspected mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington,” is acceptable however.
  • As for stories about U.S. missiles accidentally hitting an Afghan village or a UN food depot, I remove the word “accidentally.” Listeners can decide for themselves if the attacks were an accident. You may recall that the U.S. initially claimed it had wiped out many Viet Cong guerrillas in My Lai.
  • I include news from the many alternative online sites and from news organizations that are not always American or British. News agencies in Pakistan have been remarkably fair and their stories are insightful. Because of this, I have been able to include more points of view from others, including the Taliban.
  • Included as well are comments from people who are critical of U.S. foreign policy, comments from peace groups ... and of course comments from those in favour of war.

    One more thing: There are no ’brilliant’ maneuvers. As Dennis Sherbanuk puts it, “people aren’t stupid. They have the RIGHT to be given the facts. They don’t want cheerleading journalism.”

    David Kirkham, now with a healthcare union, would agree.

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